Clemson’s starting defensive front from 2018 is gone.
It finished as one of the premier position units in the country on the way to the 2018 College Football Playoff National Championship win. The unit churned out three first-round NFL Draft picks in defensive end Clelin Ferrell (No. 4 overall), defensive tackle Christian Wilkins (No. 13 overall) and defensive tackle Dexter Lawrence (No. 17 overall).
All three of those guys along with Austin Bryant (No. 117 overall pick) are set to make an impact in the NFL this season and made way for fresh faces on the Clemson front this season, posing a unique challenge for Tiger defensive tackle coach Todd Bates.
Bates, a creative poet and writer in his spare time, hailed his new mantra for the unit at Clemson Football Media Day in Paw Bistro at the Allen Reeves Football Complex on Tuesday morning. He harped on the acronym G.O.N.E., meaning Grand Opportunity New Experience.
“That’s what it is for all these younger guys. We will miss those guys who are gone but they are gone,” Bates said. “This young group has an opportunity to gain experience and turn their potential into credentials.”
Two guys slated to make an impact in 2019 are graduate Nyles Pinckney and sophomore Jordan Williams, both of whom missed spring practice due to a pectoral injury and leg injury respectively. Missing spring practice was a blow to their development as potential starters, but Bates described their absence of reps as a blessing in disguise.
“They had to take a step back and be vocal even though they aren’t vocal naturally,” Bates said. “In the summer you depend on your leadership, and they have done a great job with that by taking the younger guys under their wings.”
When looking at the statistical absence of Wilkins and Lawrence it is easy to overlook how they led vocally and by example. The springtime injuries forced both Williams and Pinckney to lead in the film room and in practice drills.
It also made a way for the likes of junior Xavier Kelly and freshman Tyler Davis to take more responsibility on the field with an increase in reps. What Williams and Pinckney missed on the field in the spring has the potential to grow the overall strength of the entire defensive line unit.
Bates claimed Pinckney and Williams are back on track physically, running, lifting weights and training on their own in offseason conditioning. We will have a better idea of their health in a few weeks as fall camp opens up.
Both players saw time on the field last season. Pinckney played 316 snaps totaling 26 tackles and 4.5 tackles for loss in his sophomore campaign, while Williams played just 147 snaps due to an injury but garnered three tackles for loss and 1.5 sacks. They bring talent to the defensive line but have a lot to prove and learn as first-year starters. Bates’ advice to Tiger fans on the new look front: “Wait and see.”
“I love everything they bring to the table. They aren’t just run stoppers or pass rushers but complete defensive linemen,” he said. “They can play first through third down and anything else they need to past that, long yardage or short yardage. They have a great handle on the game, but they are both still learning and neither of them knows it all, and I’m looking forward to this challenge with them.”
Time will tell how the newer faces will live up to the legacy of Clemson’s defensive history, but Williams and Pinckney are set to make a tremendous impact in their first season as starting defensive tackles.